In Michigan, the United Auto Workers was the quintessential labor union. We breathed cars and trucks, and our economy rose and fell in direct correlation to auto sales. Every family had someone who worked for Ford, Chrysler, or General Motors. When cars sold well, everybody had jobs. If car sales slumped, unemployment skyrocketed.
Unless you grew up there, like I did, it’s hard to grasp how pervasive the auto industry was in our lives. For many young men, and, to a lesser degree, young women, the industry represented the opportunity to be middle-class. The work was mind-numbingly repetitive, and there were often layoffs, but generally speaking the wages, benefits, and retirement packages negotiated by the union guaranteed a financially comfortable life.
In 1973, that changed forever. The Middle East oil embargo struck; simultaneously, overseas auto makers started exporting cars to the U.S. No one, least of all the auto companies and the UAW, was prepared when American consumers no longer wanted large, poorly constructed cars that got terrible gas mileage.
In many ways, the history of the UAW and the auto industry is the story of organized labor. Union membership in the U.S. peaked in the mid 1950s at about 35 percent of workers. At its height, the UAW had a million and a half members. When I started as a union organizer in 1985, the share of workers represented by unions had declined to 20 percent. The UAW now has fewer than 400,000 members, and the latest estimate is that only 10 percent of workers belong to a union.
A majority of unionized workers were in traditional trades and manufacturing. Over the last 50 years, public employee unions gradually eclipsed the traditional trade unions, and today most union members are in the public sector.
The conventional wisdom is that the decline in union membership is due to the loss of traditional manufacturing jobs and to overseas competition, technological change, and increasingly restrictive rules governing union organizing. Employers are able to fire union activists with near impunity and appeal the results of workplace elections for years. Often, by the time the federal agency overseeing union elections issues a ruling, the workers who originally voted for the union no longer work there. According to the National Labor Relations Board, only half of successful union elections result in an actual contract.
These days, most of what we hear about unions is news of another failed organizing attempt at a foreign-owned auto plant in the South, or vague reports of possible unionization at Amazon warehouses. I don’t know what unions need to do in order to survive, but I have always believed that they would be a naturally evolving force for good in a democratic society. I always thought of unions, and organizers like myself, as advocates for others, helping them find strength and dignity in the workplace.
It’s heartbreaking to watch the demise of unions, their loss of influence, and their inability to keep the worst impulses of employers at bay. I will never understand why any worker would not want to be represented in a workplace dispute and be able to vote on the issues that directly affect them.
Years after I’d left my union organizing career, I worked for a few seasons as Wellfleet’s beach director, happily overseeing beach permit sales and managing lifeguards. During the summer of 2004, while briefly acting as interim employee association president, I organized a protest in front of town hall because the selectmen had been lethargic in responding to our bargaining request. The town librarians came out in force, along with the recreation dept. and my 80-year-old father-in-law. We marched around with protest signs during our lunch break. Later, after I had left for the winter, someone told me that the town and the employees had agreed to a new contract.
It’s impossible to escape the fundamental tension between employers and employees, whether you work for a massive manufacturer or a little seaside town. Only when employers accept that co-determination and a partnership with employees is the only reasonable relationship can there be workplace peace.